John Fitch: Pioneer Steamboat Inventor
Grade Levels: 8 - 10
- Students will understand the transportation revolution brought about through the use of steam power to move boats over water.
- Students will practice taking notes.
- Copies of the notetaking handout.
- Read the information below out loud to your students.
- Ask them to take notes on the information on the handout.
- Here is an example of outlined notes.
- Steamboats (inland waters); steam ships (open sea); note spellings
- John Fitch: New Englander
- Fitch's idea: hitch oars to an engine
- Fitch's first steamboat: 6 oars each side
- People's reaction: laughter, fear
- Passenger service: Burlington, NJ, to Philadelphia, PA; sailed more than 2000 mi.
- Original oared boat redesigned to use center-mounted paddle wheel
- Frequent breakdowns and passenger fear led to financial loss and business shutdown
- Fitch, a pioneer, showed the way for others
- By 1850, steamboats common on rivers
Prior to the steam engine, people relied on muscle power, animals, wind, and favorable currents to propel their canoes, boats, barges, and ships. In the developing United States, where roads into the interior were rare, steamboats were able to follow the natural highways of rivers.
Two distinctive terms are used to identify steamdriven vessels. A steam ship is one that sails on open seas such as the Atlantic Ocean. Steamboats sail on inland waters such as rivers and lakes. The smaller vessel, the steamboat, was developed first.
John Fitch was a New Englander who did not have much formal education, but he had a natural instinct for mechanics. He knew that steam had the power to move gears and wheels. "Why," he asked himself, "can't I use steam to drive a boat forward?" He determined to put his ideas to work; he would build a steamboat.
It occurred to Fitch that the thing to do was to hitch a steam engine to oars; only instead of moving the oars with muscle power, he would use steam power. After many trials and errors he produced such a boat. The result was a strange looking contraption. The boat looked like a great canoe with six oars on each side, except that there were no paddlers. People hooted and laughed when they saw Fitch's creation. Few people wanted to get too close; they saw smoke billowing out of the smokestack. They were afraid the boat might blow up. But, Fitch had the last laugh. When he pushed the throttle into forward and the oars began to lift and dip, and the John Fitch, as the boat was named, began to move across the water, people had second thoughts. Fitch had created America's first successful steamboat.
Fitch went on to improve his invention. Before 1800 he had launched three steamboats on the Delaware River. The boats carried passengers from Burlington, New Jersey, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the three years his boats operated, they sailed more than 2000 miles up and down the Delaware River.
Fitch redesigned his original boat by getting rid of the oars. He replaced them with a central paddle wheel that was set within the hull. The wheel operated in a manner similar to the way a duck's feet work to paddle through water. Unfortunately, Fitch's boats frequently broke down. Also, many people remained frightened of the boats and preferred to use horse-drawn carriages.
The passenger line Fitch operated began to lose money. The great losses Fitch and his partners suffered forced them to go out of business. Fitch's interest in steamboats remained, but his debts were so great that he had to turn to other ways to make a living. But, Fitch had shown the way, and others who were better financed improved on his ideas. By 1850 steamboats had become a familiar sight on America's rivers.